Here’s what we know about the proposed cuts to TFD

Photos by C. Ray Shea

We’ve had a couple firefighters reach out to us this week about a message from the Tacoma Professional Firefighters Union. It references the proposed biennial budget for 2021-2022 and the accompanying changes to the Tacoma Fire Department. Here’s what they sent:

The proposed changes to the budget and the way funds are distributed will affect the way Tacoma’s emergency services operate. It wasn’t that long ago that Tacoma’s fire department was called on to deal with multiple large fires in an unusually short period of time. I had that in the forefront of my mind when I wrote to my city council representative, Chris Beale, along with Mayor Woodards, to get their thoughts on the matter:

I’m reaching out to you for two reasons. First, as a concerned citizen of South Tacoma. Only eight weeks ago I stood on my roof and watched the fire just down the road at Wapato Hills growing over a 24 hour period. For the first time in my life I made a list of the things I would grab if my family and I had to evacuate. It was unsettling to say the least. 

Hearing that the fire department is facing a 20% cut is unsettling in a similar way. I understand that, given the world we’re living in, sacrifices must be made. It’s my personal opinion, though, that our city’s fire department should be far back in the line leading up to the chopping block.

The second reason I wrote to them was for this article. The following are their responses from November, starting with Council Member Chris Beale:

The city manager’s budget proposal on this issue is complex and not easy to understand. The city is planning to take over Basic Life Transport Services (BLS) from the ambulance company AMR next year. In order to do that we would shift firefighters from fire engines to ambulances. We will also be adding a Behavioral Health Unit (to respond to calls involving people experiencing a mental health crisis). In total, we will be adding more than 40 positions to the Tacoma Fire Department (You can look at the presentation from the fire chief that outlines the changes – slides 14 – 22). Over 80% of our calls are for medical aid and we will continue to be able to handle those calls under this current proposal.

The letter circulating is correct that the current proposed budget would lead to fewer fire engines, but it leaves out that the proposal will not mean fewer fire fighters (the attached sheet shows we are adding almost $40 million dollars to the fire budget in the next two years). This is not a funding issue, but a personnel issue. We simply do not have enough fire fighters, nor can we get them through the academy fast enough to take over BLS and operate all of the current engines. Even with that, I have been working with my colleagues to try and keep those fire engines in service (meaning even more firefighters for our city). I do not want to see any fire services go offline. I agree that the most important things our city must do is emergency response services, and I am committed to make sure this is not an issue.

The current budget is still just a proposal and I have heard from many residents who are concerned about the loss of fire engines. I completely understand their concerns and I am working with my colleagues to change this. I think we should be using a portion of our reserve fund to meet this need. There are many, many departments that are getting cut – Fire is not the only department. 

Thank you for your email and I encourage you to follow our work as we make adjustments to the budget in the weeks ahead. I am more than happy to talk further and answer any of your questions, both fire and non-fire related

Here’s the response from Mayor Woodards:

Thank you for taking the time to reach out on this important issue – as both a resident and a journalist – and share your thoughts. Public safety in all its forms remains among our highest priorities as a city. As someone who has experienced a house fire, I can relate to the unsettling experience you had over the summer. The work our Fire Department does is deeply important and saves lives.

In these unprecedented times, we are required by law to finalize and pass a balanced budget by year end while being financially constrained by the economic impacts of COVID-19. Throughout the budget process, we will be looking closely to ensure that we can continue to provide for all our community needs. I, along with my colleagues, will be reviewing a revised proposal tomorrow during a study session that would mitigate the fire service impacts as compared to what is currently proposed, and I look forward to continued conversation as we work to finalize this budget. The outcomes of that conversation as well as the public hearing at tomorrow night’s Council Meeting may be of interest to you as you develop your article. Please feel free to reach out to my policy analyst Melanie Harding (cc’d) if you would like more information on tomorrow’s virtual meetings or if you would like to connect and talk further.

Feedback in all forms is vital as we go through the budget process, and I want to thank you again for reaching out and sharing your input. We cannot run a city with excellence unless we are hearing from community members about the needs they see each day.

City budgets are hugely complex (the full 2021-22 budget proposal is 574 pages) and I won’t pretend to know all the ins and outs of the proposed changes. However, I believe that an informed and engaged public is vital to the overall health of a city and I would highly encourage you to research the topic and reach out to your city council rep with any questions. You elected them and you have the right to be as informed as you wish.

  • The full 2021-22 budget proposal can be read here. Info on the fire department can be found on pages 97-103.
  • You can watch a recording of the referenced city council meeting here. The part specifically talking about TFD starts at about the 1:12 mark.
  • For comparison, the fire department’s 2019 annual report can be seen here.
  • The results of the study session on community safety can be seen here. Details on fire and medical serves are on pages 14-21.
  • The Firefighters Union can be reached here.
  1. Extraordinary reporting as always from Grit City! Thank you for helping to inform our community with clear language and abundant resources. I also appreciate that our Mayor and Council members are having meaningful conversation with concerned citizens and listening. I’ll be following this story closely. Thanks.

  2. I am just giving a glance over, but it looks like from the budget, they fire department budget is as follows: (pg 99 of the proposed budget):

    2017-2018 – $152,741,104
    2019-2020 – $165,933,602
    2021-2022 – $204,671,370

    So it’s less a reduction in overall budget with the general fund and property taxes staying the same, and intergovernmental revenues increasing with charges for services, etc, than a reallocation of funds from fire trucks, to fire personnel and EMS services.

    If 80% of emergency service call volume is for EMS calls, shouldn’t the city be trying to juggle things to address that?

    The last firetruck procurement I saw take place was a massive expense, and took years. This is a necessary expense, but we are in unprecedented times with covid reducing revenues, so how does the city increase EMS responses and staffing to reflect the increased call volumes, while working under those constraints?

    I guess I just see a $41 million increase, with is around a 25% increase in budget for the fire department, it’s just going to bump up EMS services and fire department staffing, and that seems not to be where the the fire union wanted it to go.

    I could not find a source not find a source on the 80% call volume being for EMS services, but I don’t really have anything that makes me doubt that’s accurate.

  3. I’m not sure what the exact budget numbers are or how they get them, but as far as response capability goes this is a reduction in capabilities, both fire and ems. Currently AMR, a private company, provides transport for low acuity (BLS) patients. TFD paramedics provide transport for critical patients. This proposal is to stop using AMR as the primary transport for BLS patients and instead use the firefighters off of three engines. This will directly affect both the firefighting and medical capacity of the department, as those firefighters will now be tied up driving patients to the hospital rather than having AMR EMTs do so.

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